By Nat Galarea Gbessagee
In August 2021, President George Manneh Weah set up a 25-member Special Bicentennial Steering Committee to organize and implement appropriate programs for the country’s bicentennial anniversary. The main marker for the bicentennial is pegged to January 7, 1822 when the American Society for Colonizing the Free People of Color of the United States (aka the American Colonization Society (ACS)) resettled the first group of freed black American slaves on Providence Island in modern-day Monrovia. The government has declared a one-year celebratory period from December 2021 to December 2022 for the bicentennial in a bid to engender broader participation in bicentennial activities by Diaspora Liberians, persons of Liberian descent, friends of Liberia, and Liberians at home. The theme for the bicentennial is “Liberia: The Land of Return – Commemorating 200 Years of Freedom and Pan-African Leadership,” which is meant to signify the country’s many historical milestones in intra-Africa and world affairs.
The Providence Island resettlement scheme in 1822 has always generated corresponding historical arguments about the 1821 “land purchase” by ACS agents Dr. Eli Ayers and U.S. Navy Lieutenant Robert Stockton from Dei, Bassa, Vai, and Gola chiefs of the former Grain Coast, now the Republic of Liberia. The key arguments have always been that in the 1820s in Africa and the agrarian world private ownership of land was improbable because land was generally for communal use and not for sales to individuals and organizations. Then there was the argument that Stockton secured Providence Island and adjacent Cape Mesurado from the African chiefs in 1821 through coercion by pointing a gun to the head of one of the chiefs to sign the land purchase agreement. But Liberian Historian Carl Patrick Burrowes disputes that any of this information is true.
I seek in this article, therefore, to reconcile Burrowes’ accounts against other historical accounts regarding the sales of land in prehistoric Liberia and the general circumstances of the 1821 “land purchase” agreement between the ACS and the African chiefs. I will also look at the general state of relations between descendants of the freed slaves and those of the African chiefs in light of President William R. Tolbert’s 1972 sesquicentennial speech. I will discuss the significance of the bicentennial as well as attempt to disabuse young and old Liberians alike of the idea that identifying, calling, and referring to a fellow Liberian as “Americo-Liberian” is an act of attempted alienation and divisiveness.
Burrowes’ Archival Find and Implications
Historian Carl Patrick Burrowes discloses during interviews with various media outlets in late 2021 that while searching through the microfilm archives of the Bushrod Washington Collection at Chicago History Museum in Illinois, USA in August 2021, he found the “original” 1821 land purchase agreement between ACS agents and African chiefs in the files of ACS secretary Elias B. Caldwell. He told the Washington Post that the archival find at the Chicago History Museum was “The most significant discovery of his career,” insofar as the “document helps debunk several prevailing myths about the acquisition of territory that became…[Liberia’s] capital” (Cavanaugh). These included “Myth 1: Local West African rulers rejected the contract because their societies prohibited the buying and selling of land; Myth 2: The local rulers were unable to comprehend the content of the contract because they did not understand English; and Myth 3: The land was purchased at gunpoint” (Cavanaugh). The Daily Observer also saw the Burrowes find as seeking “to both establish a new perspective from which the nation’s history could be told and help clarify and correct long-held beliefs that may have fueled division among peoples” (Staff Editor).
The two newspapers appeared more optimistic about the impact of Burrowes’ find on contemporary Liberian history and Liberian society at large than Burrowes himself. In an interview with Octavius Obey published on YouTube in December 2021, Burrowes acknowledged that “The document [he found] in and of itself doesn’t speak to the issue, but when we look at the arguments surrounding it and other findings related to it…. for example, the transcripts of the negotiations kept by Ayers” (Obey), then one may conclude otherwise. But, if Burrowes truly believes that the historic purchase agreement he found “does not speak to the issue,” then how might it be possible to glean from that very purchase document information on settling the myths alluded to by the Washington Post, or the upbeat rendition proffered by the Daily Observer about the document helping to “clarify and correct long-held beliefs that may have fueled division among peoples for more than a century,” let alone the possibility of garnering “a new perspective from which the nation’s history could be told”?
Yet, Burrowes insists that the sales of land to private individuals was a routine business activity during the time of the ACS land purchase and argues that the African chiefs understood every term of the 1821 purchase agreement in that the “…local rulers understood Western contracts because they had been involved in business arrangements with Westerners, including pre-purchase agreements, for centuries” (Staff Editor). On myth #3 Burrowes deduces that Stockton was only fond of playing with guns, but that he really did not threaten anyone with a gun during negotiations with African chiefs. Indeed, as a historian and researcher, Burrowes is within his scholarly rights to extrapolate, predict, and give new meaning and new life to the document he found than what the document itself actually stands for and deserves. But these individual interpretations of historical documents like the 1821 purchase agreement cannot be presented as absolute and uncontestable historical facts, especially where the object of analysis has no intrinsic values beyond the subjective opinions of the historian or researcher.
The issue of proof is also complicated by the lack of specificity about the methods Burrowes used to confirm that the purchase agreement he found at the Chicago History Museum was an authentic copy of the original agreement. Then, there are unanswered questions about how and why Ayers came to draft the “original” land purchase agreement in his handwriting rather than in someone else’s handwriting or typed it? Who set the price for the land sale at USD300? Who identified the items for the barter exchange in lieu of cash payment? How it became possible that Eli Ayers and John Mills signed the agreement with their full names and signatures, but the traditional leaders only signed unto the agreement individually with an “X” mark under such names as King Long Peter, King George, King Governor, King Jimmy, and so on, as if the chiefs forgot their own names or lacked full names altogether. And why the traditional leaders signed with “X” mark instead of their thumbs or actual signatures, if they were so familiar with western contracts? Amidst these vexing questions, Burrowes’ answer to the question, “Any document could be a forgery. How do you know this one is the original?” was less direct and more conjectural or rhetorical: “First of all, the document is in the handwriting of Eli Ayres, the American who signed it on behalf of the ACS. Second, the paper is aged, not modern. Third, its location inspires further confidence in its authenticity….” (Staff Editor). But can a century-old purchase agreement really be authenticated by handwriting sample, storage location, and archaeological dating method? Maybe so, but not necessarily in this case.
Other Historical Accounts on 1821 “Land Purchase” Story
The purchase document Burrowes found does not cast any new light on contemporary Liberian history, especially the role and place of the indigenous chiefs and their descendants in the founding of Liberia. It also does not explain why the founding date of Liberia is often associated with January 7, 1822 when the ACS resettled the first group of the freed slaves on Providence Island and not on February 20, 1824 when the ACS established the Colony of Liberia, or December 15, 1821 when the ACS and the chiefs signed the purchase agreement. Interestingly, I can remember as a Bassa youth growing up in Liberia that it was not uncommon to hear across Liberian society that the Bassa people sold their land for smoked fish. That assertion puzzled me a lot, and I always wanted to know which land the Bassa people sold, to whom, and for what purpose? I had no ready answers to these questions until in adulthood when I found out that the whole assertion was nothing but a farce, a historical misrepresentation of the 1821 land transaction between agents of the American Colonization Society (ACS) and Dei, Bassa, Vai, and Gola, chiefs of what is today the Republic of Liberia.
In particular, in 1821 the ACS sent Dr. Eli Ayers and navy lieutenant Robert Stockton on the second reconnaissance mission to West Africa (the first mission was in 1818 by Samuel J. Mills and Ebenezer Burgess leading to the Sherbro debacle) to secure suitable land on which to resettle a group of freed slaves. Ayers and Stockton entered a series of negotiations with the local chiefs in 1821 for a piece of land on which to resettle the freed slaves. The net result of those negotiations was the grant of Providence Island, Cape Mesurado, and adjacent areas in current Montserrado County. However, relying on his recent archival find at the Chicago History Museum, Burrowes believes that sales of land was regular business in prehistoric Liberia, and that it is inaccurate that one of the ACS negotiators used a gun during the land negotiations to compel compliance. Many historical accounts stand in contrast to Burrowes’ claims, especially that of American naturalist, historian, and freelancer Michael Harwood.
In a 1972 Heritage Magazine article, Harwood provides extensive details on the founding, management, and challenges of the ACS, including the ill-fated Sherbro Island voyage, and the search of fertile land several miles off south of the coast of then British Sierra Leone. Harwood explains that the initial arrangements between ACS agents and the local African chiefs called for “an annual rent of three hundred dollars” in exchange “for the use of forty square miles of land on the coast south of Sierra Leone” (i.e., Cape Mesurado). However, the management team of the ACS back in the USA “refused to accept the agreement, considering the sum an unjustified tribute to the heathen king who controlled the land,” Harwood says. The African chiefs in return refused to sell Cape Mesurado or any indigenous land to the ACS. And the first attempt by Ayres and Stockton to purchase land from the local chiefs through King Peter also failed. Hence, Ayres and Stockton, “After days of waiting for King Peter to palaver again, they [Ayres and Stockton] marched inland to his village and at pistol point forced him to sell. The price for Cape Mesurado was less than three hundred dollars in clothes, guns, powder, rum, tobacco, and trinkets. This ‘purchase’ from an unwilling seller the American Colonization Society named Liberia—’free land’—and the first settlement there, Monrovia” (Harwood).
Similarly, in “Reluctant Imperialists: The U.S. Navy and Liberia, 1819-1845” Eugene Van Sickle recalls that on December 15, 1821, after a deadlock of several days during the negotiations between ACS representatives Stockton and Ayers and King Peter of Cape Mesurado, “Stockton responded to Peter’s resistance to American settlement by aiming his pistol at the king’s head, threatening to kill him if he did not sell land to the ACS” (267). A third account contrasting Burrowes claims can be found on the website of the U.S. Library of Congress, which is a much larger information source than the Chicago History Museum from which Burrowes found the purchase agreement. Hence, quoting the fourth annual report of the ACS, the Library narrates under the Liberian historical timeline for 1821 that “Stockton took charge of the negotiations with leaders of the Dey and Bassa peoples who lived in the area of Cape Mesurado. At first, the local leaders were reluctant to surrender their peoples’ land to the strangers but were forcefully persuaded…to part with a ‘36 mile long and 3 mile wide’ strip of coastal land for trade goods, supplies, weapons, and rum worth approximately $300” (LOC).
Several other historical accounts speak not only to the persistent grab of indigenous land, but also to the marginalization and exclusion of the African chiefs and their upsprings in the formation and governance of the new nation-state of Liberia. In fact, back in 1825 and 1826, Jehudi Ashmun who succeeded Ayres as ACS governing agent was fond of using excessive force and related aggressive tactics to grab indigenous land to extend the colony of Liberia. Basically, as already established through the historical records quoted above, it was clear that Stockton used a gun to extract land from the chiefs and that Cape Mesurado was sold under duress.
President Tolbert’s Sesquicentennial Speech and the 2022 Bicentennial
Liberia is today a multiethnic, multicultural, and multireligious society, with each group having its own identity tags and core values. Historically, tough, all Liberians fall under two dominant demographic groups: 1) Native-Liberian (also called Native people, country people, aborigines, or Bassa, Kpelle, Grebo, or Lorma people, etc. by ethnic affiliation) and 2) Americo-Liberian (also called settlers, pioneers, Congau people, newcomers, Kwee people, or ex-slaves or freed slaves). Yet, since the early 2000s concerted efforts have been mounted in certain quarters of Liberian society to make the term “Americo-Liberian” a hate speech punishable by law. Hence, when the Daily Observer asked Historian Carl Patrick Burrows, “How do you refer to those who came from America to live in Liberia? Some call them Americo-Liberians and ex-slaves,” he not only gives his preference for the word “repatriates,” but he also infers that “To label people whose families have lived here for six generations as “Americo-Liberians” is similar to calling all Manlike-speakers ‘Malian-Liberians’” (Staff Editor).
Well, the word “Americo-Liberian” is not a “label” in any negative sense, but an identity tag created and used by the freed slaves themselves since the 1800s and 1900s. Americo-Liberians were and remained a powerful political and social group in Liberia. At least “Over 5000 Recaptives – mostly from the Congo region – were also settled [in Liberia], particularly between 1844 and 1863, initially in the care of the Americo-Liberians – as the New World African settlers and their descendants were collectively designated” (Akpan 250). The Americo-Liberian group and their Native-Liberian compatriots have coexisted on the same landmass prior to Liberia’s independence in 1847. And, according to the 2009 Final Report of Liberia Truth and Reconciliation (TRC), “As Liberia began to establish itself as a new nation, a small number of Americo-Liberian families and their patronage networks dominated all aspects of government, economy, the security sector, commerce, and social advancement…” (4). Yet, quite unfortunately, “The Americo-Liberians replicated many of the exclusions and social differentiations that had so limited their own lives in the United States” (Meisler).
Regarding Burrowes analogy about Malinke speakers and Americo-Liberians, it is an open secret that all Malinke speakers are not confined to Mali, nor do all Malinke speakers originate from Mali. Besides, every Liberian who has visited or lived in the United States will know that calling an American citizen “African American,” “Chinese American,” or “Irish American” is not an act of alienation, segregation, and discrimination as Burrowes wants to suggest, but intrinsically a social or demographic marker that has nothing to do with the number of generations a particular demographic group has coexisted with others on American soil. What these accounts show, however, is that Americo-Liberian has been a legitimate politico-cultural and demographic group in Liberia prior to the independence of Liberia and will continue to be until the end of time. Hence, references to Americo-Liberian can never, and should never, be considered a hate speech in Liberia, especially that we now live in a new world of hybridity and globalization, as certain assimilation tactics may no longer work effectively. Each of us will now have to appreciate our identities as persons of specific cultural and linguistic backgrounds even as we coexist peacefully as persons of a common patrimony.
President William R. Tolbert, Jr. was aware of these creeping identity crises and related socio-cultural and political skirmishes when his government celebrated Liberia’s Sesquicentennial anniversary in 1972. During the 1972 sesquicentennial or 150th anniversary celebrations, President Tolbert made a passionate plea to all Liberians to unite and to recognize and cherish one another for the immense sacrifices made over the years for the sustenance of Liberia as an independent nation-state. The President found “It…befitting that we [Liberians] of this generation pay homage not only to that small band of hardy settlers who returned to our fatherland, but even more so, that we offer equal tribute to the vast and overwhelming majority of our indigenous brothers and sisters who have labored together in the past with perseverance….” To some Liberians, President Tolbert was conciliatory to a great fault by the very references to “that small band of hardy settlers” and “the vast and overwhelming majority of our indigenous brothers and sisters” (MICAT). But to other Liberians, the President was right on point, but if the President had any fault at all regarding his statement, then it was a good fault, a fault of unity.
It is now fifty years since 1972 when President Tolbert made those conciliatory statements. Liberia has evolved from a one-party, autocratic state to a multiparty democratic society after a military coup in 1980 and a series of gruesome civil wars in the 1990s and early 2000s. Yet, the past is the past and Liberians should no longer think or dream of instability and a sesquicentennial but of peaceful coexistence and a bicentennial. Like President Tolbert in 1972, President George Manneh Weah is expected to grace the bicentennial celebrations in February 2022 with his own conciliatory message. Yet, the bicentennial provides the time and opportunity not just for festive activities and elaborate celebrations across Liberia, but also time and opportunity for critical evaluation of the historical past and personal introspection of where we have been, where we are, and where we are going as a nation and people.
The bicentennial should never be the time to sugarcoat history, to shift responsibility, and to downgrade the role of one group or the other in the founding of Liberia. There are hardly any “pure Americo-Liberian” or “pure Native Liberian” in Liberian society today due to intermarriages and other social cleavages, but we are all not “just Liberians.” For whether we like it or not, we are neither less a Liberian nor diehard confusionists, segregationists, or troublemakers by belonging to particular counties, religious and academic institutions, political parties, demographic groups, and civil society organizations in Liberia. American Journalist Stanley Meisler did claim in a 1973 article in the Atlantic Monthly that the appointment of Harry A. Greaves as Bong County Superintendent was “… a good example of how confusing it sometimes is these days to differentiate an Americo-Liberian from a tribal man [Native-Liberian].” Meisler says Greaves was “so much a part of the Americo-Liberian Establishment,” and “Though culturally an Americo-Liberian, Greaves likes to describe himself…as a tribal man trying to encourage economic development in the Bong County of his tribal peoples” (10). But, as Meisler explains, Greaves was both a ward of the Greaves Family and the biological son of his father “Zachpah,” so he could legitimately claim both identities. The 1973 Harry A. Greaves (Sr.) example is true for many persons of Liberian origin in and out of Liberia today. Basically, all of us have multiple identities and those identities are what make us unique, so they need to be respected and accepted. We all do not have to look the same way, walk the same way, talk the same way, and dress the same way to appreciate one another and coexist peacefully on the land the omnipotent God has bequeathed unto our forebears and us.
Finally, January 7, 2022 will mark the 200-year anniversary or bicentennial of the arrival of the first group of freed black American slaves on the landmass known today as the Republic of Liberia. The not-too-cozy relations between the new arrivals and the indigenous African peoples inhabiting the land prior have been the source of much public debate and controversy among descendants of the two groups. But whatever the sources of controversies and disagreements might have been nearly two centuries ago, the need for descendants of the two groups to coexist peacefully as peoples of a common patrimony remains paramount. But, as President Tolbert indicated fifty years ago in 1972, we in Liberia cannot seriously celebrate and “pay homage…to that small band of hardy settlers who returned to our fatherland” and forget to “offer equal tribute to the vast and overwhelming majority of our indigenous brothers and sisters” who we met on our fatherland.
Serious cultural differences do exist between Americo-Liberians and Native-Liberians. And, as Akpan has correctly observed: “The Americo-Liberians practised an essentially western culture in their life style, political institutions, through the use of the English language, individual ownership and perpetual alienation of land, and their adherence to Christianity and monogamy. Th e indigenous Africans were Traditionalists or Muslims, spoke their own languages, and held land communally. Their villages were governed by chiefs and elders assisted by age-grade or socio-political organizations like the poro (for men) and sande (for women)” (250-252). Politically, state power shifted involuntarily in the nineteenth century from the mulatto ex-slaves to the black ex-slaves, but in 1973 “The system seems geared now to allow power to pass first to the Americo-Liberians with some tribal blood, then to the tribalists, such as Greaves, who have been assimilated into Americo-Liberian culture, and finally to the real tribal people” (Meisler). In the view of Meisler back in 1973, “The selection of [James E.] Green as Vice President [to President Tolbert] shows that the pure Americo-Liberians are resisting change. But [that] it [change] is inevitable.” And the 1980 coup has come to signify the “inevitable change” Meisler so accurately predicted.
Indeed, as Liberia begins its bicentennial celebrations from December 2021 to December 2022, many diverse perspectives on lingering historical questions about the founding of Liberia are bound to arise, but the code for everyone should be “unity” rather than division or bigotry. Liberia is what it is today because of the sweat and blood and talents of all Liberians, whether of Americo-Liberian or Native-Liberian stock. Hence, the celebrations need to be inclusive in all of its programs and activities, although the celebrations are pegged to the date of the arrival of the first group of “repatriates,” I will say, in order to begin the unity and reconciliation drives with Historian Burrowes.
About the Author
Nat Galarea Gbessagee is former director of public affairs in the Liberian Ministry of Information, Cultural Affairs, and Tourism. He is an educator and social commentator on contemporary Liberian issues. He holds a PhD in rhetoric and technical communication. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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